Starting at 5 a.m. Nov. 9, drivers on the state Route 99 tunnel in Seattle will have to pay tolls after nine months of riding free. This latest step in the nearly decade-long effort to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct also will have consequences for downtown traffic.
The Washington State Department of Transportation is required to use toll revenues to help pay for and maintain the $3.3 billion tunnel project. The state transportation commission set the rates last year.
The tolls range from $1 on the weekends to $2.25 weekday afternoons for drivers with Good To Go passes. Those paying by mail will have to pay $2 more.
Existing Good To Go passes will work in the tunnel. WSDOT is still offering free passes for tunnel users.
The agency expects drivers to try to avoid paying. That could cause even more congestion in downtown Seattle as cars move to surface streets.
WSDOT's Patty Rubstello says, in the worst-case scenario, as much as half of current tunnel traffic could divert to surface streets. The worst of it likely will come right after tolling starts.
"That's similar to what we saw with (SR) 520," Rubstello said. "That first week, two weeks, month, people are testing different routes out. We expect people to go back to the tunnel once they've tried out different routes."
The tunnel sees about 80,000 daily trips, Rubstello said.
Officials are continuing to encourage people to consider options such as transit and telecommuting. The tolling is another part of the "Seattle Squeeze," a five-year period of transportation infrastructure changes in the city.
"We did a fantastic job getting out of our cars, trying transit, doing all that stuff when we closed the viaduct," said Heather Marx, with the Seattle Department of Transportation. Traffic volume has increased since the winter closure, she added.
"We want normal to be less," Marx said.
One problem is lagging bus times heading south out of downtown, particularly on routes that used to take the viaduct. SDOT and King County Metro have been experimenting with re-routes to ease that congestion. Marx said the agencies plan to release a more permanent plan in the coming days.
One reason transportation officials chose to wait to start tolling was to clear up some construction around Alaskan Way. By Nov. 9, the demolition of the viaduct should be complete and Alaskan Way should have two lanes open in each direction.
Another issue has been WSDOT's move to re-vamp the Good To Go system. The agency had planned to roll out a pay-as-you go system concurrently with the new tolls this summer, but faced delays from a new vendor. Instead, the current pre-paid Good To Go system will remain in place when tolling begins in November.